Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond
A Soldier of the Great War
April 15, 2012
People want to see Mikhail Baryshnikov. It doesn’t really matter what he’s doing. Of course at 64 he can’t deliver the dance performances he did at 24. Nobody could. But yet his star shines on and he’s continued to have a successful career as an actor in all kinds of settings. People will pay significant sums to see him live and he’s the primary reason that In Paris, a production of Dmitry Krymov’s Theater Laboratory is receiving a huge national U.S. tour this year. The show is currently on The Broad Stage in Santa Monica and will be seen later on at Berkeley Rep in the Bay Area and eventual reach New York as part of the Lincoln Center Festival in August. Yet despite Baryshnikov’s name and even a dance step or two here and there along the way, In Paris bears the stamp of its creator Dmitry Krymov far more prominently. And with his decidedly visual sense of storytelling one hopes audiences here will remember his work and name after a visit to this one act 80-minute story. In Paris is based on a short story by Ivan Bunin, the first Russian author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1933. It’s a simple love story about two Russian expatriates who meet in Paris between the wars. Baryshnikov play a former Russian Army general whose been abandoned by his wife and now lives alone in Paris. He accidentally meets a young waitress, played by Anna Sinyakina, in a nearby Russian restaurant who has also been left in the city far away from her husband and soon the general starts visiting the restaurant daily until he ventures to meet her away from work. There’s little story here and the deeper political and psychological aspects of the story are largely ignored including the way the characters deal with their substantial histories of war and loss. In Krymov’s world this is beside the point.
Krymov and his ensemble are more concerned about developing a series of powerful visual images that leave their own impressions. Krymov spent many years as a purely visual artist in between his stints in the theater and the painterly visuals permeate every inch of this show. The look evokes black and white photographs of the early 20th century as if everything on the pitch black raked stage could be pulled from a shoebox in your great grandmother’s attic. Characters drag around huge photographic cut outs that serve as scenery and even physical objects like table and chairs are more symbolic than functional. At one point the general and his love take a car ride in a life-sized postcard of a car complete with doors that open and a chauffeur leaning from the cut out window. The car rotates on the huge turntable set that is frequently augmented by video projections of supertitles that are also produced to augment the visual effect of the entire scene. (The spoken language of the piece is primarily in Russian and French.)
These images can be striking, but they aren’t always enough to counterbalance the tepid story and odd tonal juxtapositions. Krymov packs the love story with extended scenes of absurdist humor and slapstick. A lengthy bit where Baryshnikov repeatedly must get up to replace either his coat or hat that take turns falling off of their pegs grows tiresome quickly. A fake dog urinates on the stopped car the lovers are riding in as the audience watches the liquid trickle down the entire surface of the lit stage. It’s whimsical all right but there’s a fine line between funny and tedious. There’s a good bit of music, some of it performed live by the five or six ensemble players, including, oddly enough, opera arias. While the waitress readies for her date, a lovely mezzo performs Cherubino’s “Non so più” from Le Nozze di Figaro as the score is projected at the rear of the stage. Then as the score scrolls by, the music changes to Bizet’s “L'amour est un oiseaux rebelle” from Carmen. And just to maximize the "whatever" quotient, the show returns to Bizet again in the deus ex machina conclusion. Krymov’s visual allusions are far more solid with those concluding scenes drenched in the images of Chagall if not his color palette. So if you like to look, the show has a lot to offer. And if you like to look at Baryshnikov, whether he's in motion or not, this may be right up your alley. The show runs at The Broad Stage until April 21.